The British Columbia Electoral Boundaries Commission delivered its report to the legislature yesterday recommending a major redistribution of electoral seats from rural to urban areas. This is a long overdue process which will do much to enhance democracy in the British Columbia and help the government of British Columbia implement policies that reflect a 21rst century province rather than a 19th century province.
There is a great myth of Canada as a rural or northern nation. In fact, for the most part Canada is an urban nation and its modern face is largely to be found in the cities. While our economy is still highly dependent upon resource extraction, there is an increasingly vibrant and diversified general economy built around the financial industry, service industry and manufacturing industry. Furthermore, the bulk of our population is located in major urban or sub-urban areas.
Despite this, the practical reality is that there are significant differences in the weighting of our votes across Canada and within each of the Provinces so that the votes of urban citizens are significantly discounted compared to the votes of rural citizens. This discrepancy, which dates back to the earliest days of Canadian history, has been endorsed as a permissible part of our democratic culture in what I think of as one of the great lost opportunities for the Supreme Court to enhance democracy in Canada. In a reference concerning the electoral boundaries in Saskatchewan, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the protection given to the right to vote does not imply one person one vote. Instead it allows for electoral boundaries to be set so as to allow for significant differences in the populations of ridings.
The difference is most dramatically seen at the federal level. For example, the electoral district of Labrador has a population of approximately 27,000 people. By contrast, the urban Vancouver riding of Vancouver-Kingsway (which includes some of the more socially challenged areas in the nation) has a population of close to 115,000. While these numbers reflect total population there is no reason to expect that the voter population is radically different in terms of ratios (although there will be more non-citizens in Kingsway). Thus, if the ratios are even close to true, a vote in Labrador is worth over four times a vote in Kingsway.
Traditionally this has been justified on the basis of the physical size of a given riding and the rigors attached to traveling to see all constituents. By contrast, the argument goes, a legislator can walk around an urban riding in a few hours. This argument rings hollow in the modern era for a few reasons. First, even in rural ridings it seems that most of the population is centred in a few central locations within the riding. Second, a great deal of modern communication between elector and representative occurs through electronic media such as the telephone or the internet. Third, the reality of most urban ridings is that the ease of walking around is vastly counterbalanced by the burden imposed by the number of people and diversity of peoples and problems found in the complex urban environment. This is not to say that life is harder in the city necessarily, but it is to say that it certainly is not easier.
Urban and rural ridings certainly have different needs but we should not address those needs by undermining core democratic principles. If it is harder to represent phycially large ridings then figure out ways of making that representation easier: allow for more contituency offices in more towns, assist in developing on-line forums or give higher travel budgets to the legislators from those areas. These get at the root of the issue without saying that the vote of the city dweller is worth less than the vote of the rual inhabitant.